Junk mailers do us a service by indicating right on the outside of the envelope that what they are sending is junk and can be thrown directly into the trash. They do it by stamping their envelopes with legends like this one I just got from the Discover card: Important: Please open at once. DO NOT DISCARD.

What this tells you, of course, is that the contents are not at all important, that you would be a fool to waste your time opening it, and that by rearranging the words slightly, as if they were magnetic refrigerator-door words (have you seen those?), they would say: Important: Please DO NOT open. DISCARD at once.

If you had any doubt about Discover’s true meaning here, it evaporates with a glance to the upper right corner of the envelope, wherein rests the phrase bulk rate. Bulk . . . bunk . . . junk . . . these are all words from the same linguistic family, derived from some of the earliest cave language. Thunk — the sound of a rock hitting the cave’s dirt floor — is their precursor.

I’m pretty sure the United States Postal Service forbids bulk mailings that are in any meaningful way personalized — as, for example, a mailing of renewal credit cards. Those have to go out first class. Bills go out first class. Refund checks go out first class. Junk goes out bulk rate, and hits your door every morning with a loud thunk.

So naturally, for the purposes of this comment, I had to break all the laws of my nature and open this particular mailing piece to prove my point. And inside, to my astonishment, was a genuine, negotiable check for $4,380.22.

No, of course not. Inside were four Discover Card Checks “just for [me].” I was encouraged to “use them to make purchases, pay bills or get cash advances — up to [my] available credit line.”

And cash advances, I was prominently reminded, “are interest-free,” although there’s “a small transaction fee.*” The footnote disclosed that this fee was 2.5%, which works out to a rate of just 30% a year (ignoring the effects of compounding), assuming I pay it back within a month. If I don’t pay it back within the grace period, then the normal 19.8% kicks in.

Why pay cash when you can use these checks for just an immediate 2.5% surcharge, plus ongoing interest if I carried a balance at 19.8% a year?

The phrase interest-free is italicized and used a second time in this very brief letter, which ends: “So remember, with your Discover Card and Discover Card Checks, you’re always in the money.”

This is America, land of P.T. Barnum, where there’s a sucker born every day. So I guess the fact that they’re lying to us — clearly, this is NOT an “important” missive that need be opened at once — and the fact that they’re trying to fool stupid people into thinking that a 2.5% transaction fee (disclosed only in the footnote) is a good deal because it’s not called interest (though it works out to a 30% annual rate) — should not in any way lessen our esteem for Sears.

The fact is, “everybody does it.”

But that’s why smart people save a lot of time and money glancing at the top right-hand corner. If there’s cave language, out it goes. Thwap, is the sound a properly flicked bulk-rate envelope makes against the side of the trash.


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